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The Obscure History of Mickey Mouse

The Man Who First Drew Disney's Iconic Character Is Not Exactly a Household Name. But Ub Iwerks' Granddaughter Is Out to Change That.

May 12, 2002|BARBARA TANNENBAUM

On a wind-swept morning, Leslie Iwerks drives her white Jeep Cherokee down San Fernando Road on the outskirts of Burbank. She navigates surface streets for a 10-minute trip between Iwerks Entertainment and the Walt Disney Studios. By L.A. standards, it is a commute barely worth mentioning. For Iwerks, the four-mile journey symbolizes a lifetime of work. Make that two lifetimes.

Her grandfather occupies an obscure niche in pop culture history, a position that Iwerks has long wanted to change. The name of his creation--Mickey Mouse--is known and beloved the world over, but the role he played has long faded from public memory. For many decades, only specialist film historians or impassioned students of animation recalled his work.

It's not the same with Walt Disney. But at one time he, too, was a struggling, unknown producer. He relied heavily on the combined efforts of his brother Roy and a taciturn man with whom the bonds of friendship were formed during their apprenticeship days in 1920s Kansas City, Mo. The taciturn man was Ub Iwerks, and it was he who designed Mickey Mouse and drew "Plane Crazy," "The Gallopin' Gaucho" and "Steamboat Willie." The first three Mickey Mouse cartoons were do-or-die efforts by the nascent Disney Studios. The public responded with an outpouring of affection for Disney and his cartoons that can only be compared with Beatlemania. Ub got lost in the shuffle.

"History gets lost awfully quick unless you work to keep it alive in people's memory," says Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of Walt Disney Co. and Walt's only nephew.

Enter Leslie Iwerks. In 1999, she wrote, directed and produced "The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story," a documentary celebrating the life and achievements of her grandfather. In May 2001, she published a biographical companion book to the film, co-written with John Kenworthy. Since then she has tirelessly promoted the film, attending screenings at sites ranging from the Bay Area to the Netherlands. She screened her documentary at last summer's Disneyana convention in Anaheim. In October, she signed copies of her book at Walt Disney's centennial birthday celebration on the Disney cruise ship in the Caribbean. Last fall, the documentary finally aired on national television, with broadcasts on the Bravo network in September and the Independent Film Channel in November.

And still one gets the impression that Leslie Iwerks is not quite finished with her project.

At the Disney Studios gate, Iwerks presents her credentials to the security guard and is waved through. With shoulder-length blond hair, dimpled chin and a chipped front tooth, she retains something of a tomboy's mischievous persona beneath a demeanor of brisk efficiency. Here to return some promotional materials, she strides across the campus-like setting and reflects on her family's history.

Leslie Iwerks is the youngest of four children. Two brothers--Larry, 48, and John, 46--are fine-art landscape painters based in Santa Barbara. Her sister, Tamara, 35, was a newscaster in Memphis, Tenn. Only Leslie, 32, entered the family business of filmmaking and took on the quest of telling her grandfather's story.

"My grandfather passed away in 1971, a year after I was born. I never knew him," Iwerks says. But for as long as she could remember, she asked members of her family to share their memories. "My brothers would say things like, 'He wasn't that warm' or 'He didn't have a lot to say.' For them, maybe knowing him directly was enough. But I got more inspiration out of not knowing him, because what you don't know becomes more interesting. The journey takes place in your imagination."

"I don't recollect if I specifically told Leslie about Ub one way or another," says her father, Don Iwerks. "But all the kids were aware of what he'd done. They must have learned by osmosis that he was a pretty talented person. I mean, the creation of Mickey, we all knew what that was about."

There is more to Ub Iwerks than Mickey Mouse. In 1930, he left Disney to start his own company; after 10 years, with his own animation studio mired in red ink, he returned to Disney in a very different role. Immersing himself in the world of mechanical invention and special effects, Ub became the in-house inventor, the go-to-man for any technical problem.

One by one, he created techniques and equipment (the traveling matte system, the 360-degree motion-picture camera) that laid the groundwork for the digital matte special effects we see in movies today. His inventions made possible the special effects in "The Parent Trap," "Mary Poppins," "The Birds" and a host of other films. But he never did animation again.

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